Phoning it in
Twitter takes texting to the blogosphere and back.
Perhaps you don’t care what presidential hopeful John Edwards is doing at this very moment. But the curious among you needn’t so much as proffer a guess thanks to Twitter (twitter.com), a burgeoning social-networking application that unites the trifecta of modern communication: text messaging, instant messaging and blogging. Edwards is just one of Twitter’s 100,000 users (called “twitterers”) dispatching brief in-progress messages from their cell phones or computers in answer to the question “What are you doing?” Twitter users who “follow” (subscribe to) Edwards’s posts receive real-time updates on their cell phone or instant messenger. Just minutes ago, for instance, we received a text from Edwards’s staff that read: “1st quarter fund-raising deadline is tomorrow…Sen. Edwards will be in KY, IN, OH and FL today for the final push.”
Edwards aside, the desire to be the leader of the free world is not a prerequisite for opening a Twitter account. Like MySpace, it’s free (save those pesky text-messaging fees), and anyone can sign up at twitter.com. Unlike MySpace, it’s not full of spam or owned by Rupert Murdoch. Users get a personal page that displays all their posts, and from that page they can subscribe to the posts of existing members and invite friends to follow their posts. We’ve found Twitter comes in handy as an easy way to send an open invitation to hang out on those lonesome nights when no one seems to be around. “Hey all you twits,” we wrote one night. “At Club Foot drinking Long Islands. Let’s dance.” An hour later we had a gaggle of people on the floor bouncing to Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”
Limited to a paltry 140 characters, Twitter posts often center on humdrum details such as the contents of one’s lunch or which band someone’s listening to on her iPod, although a number of folks have twittered birth announcements and other important news. But in a society already oversaturated with social-networking tools and communication devices, the addition of a so-called miniblogger such as Twitter—perhaps the most populist application yet—makes us wonder, How much connection is too much connection?
Maybe there’s no such thing, says Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s founder. Dorsey developed the service last year while working for Odeo, a San Francisco–based audio-sharing start-up founded by Blogger creator Evan Williams. (Even though Twitter started as a side project, it’s now parent-company Obvious Corp’s main product.) Fascinated by the feel of continual, real-time presence emitted by the status bar of instant messengers—“I’m away from my computer” being the bland default—Dorsey set out to create a program that would allow people to wirelessly send short, mass updates on what they were doing. “Twitter is a release because you do the things you do every day and you don’t necessarily share them with anyone,” Dorsey says. “Twitter sets the expectation that it’s okay to share [those routine things] with everyone and that those messages are just as valid as any other message. It does away with a lot of fear of creating small talk; you know all the things [your friend] did with their day and you can immediately go deeper with the conversation.”
Twitter didn’t soar until last month—eight months after its launch—when Dorsey and Obvious Corp’s nine other employees demoed the service at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. They displayed Twitter on plasma-screen TVs throughout the fest, and eventually, Dorsey says, festivalgoers started to catch on. “People were twittering about the best lunch places, the best parties, the best conferences and the best bands,” he says. “For the most part it was used to organize and coordinate activities, but it also became a peanut gallery for [films and bands].” Twitter was the darling of the interactive portion of the conference, winning the prestigious Interactive Web award.
In the face of praise and drastic increases in user volume, Dorsey says it’s been difficult to remain true to Twitter’s original text-based vision. Requests pour in for features like picture messaging. “At the moment there are other sites focused on [pictures],” Dorsey says, “and they do it very well. But I think text as a medium is not as explored as it could be. In a short message, in those tiny details, there’s a lot of meaning there and a lot of our personality.”